But strict rules on returning to the UK will be enforced – based on a “traffic light” system that assigns red, amber or green to every overseas country. The main concern is that variants of concern could be imported and ultimately undermine the UK’s vaccination programme.
These are the key questions on what we know – and don’t know – so far.
What are the current rules?
Holidays and family visits abroad are illegal, under legislation intended to reduce number of people coming into the UK.
Around 20,000 travellers are arriving in the UK from abroad each day, not counting hauliers.
A de facto traffic light system already exists for arrivals to the UK.
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The only foreign country with “green” status is Ireland. Neither tests nor quarantine apply for arrivals to the UK from the Republic.
From all other nations, a negative Covid test is required before departure to the UK.
At the high-risk end of the traffic light spectrum, countries perceived as presenting special danger are on the UK’s red list. At present 40 nations are listed, mainly in southern and eastern Africa and in South America – but also including India, the UAE, Qatar, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines.
Arrivals from red countries must pre-pay for 11 nights in hotel quarantine – at a cost starting at £1,750 – plus two post-arrival PCR tests.
Every other nation is rated at “amber” – which requires 10 days self-isolation at home plus two PCR tests. Paying for a third post-arrival test on day five can trigger early release.
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The amber list applies only for arrivals to England. Scotland has tougher rules on inbound travellers, regarding all nations (apart from Ireland) as red list.
Wales and Northern Ireland do not currently have arrivals from overseas countries.
What will change?
A list of green nations regarded as low risk is being compiled and is likely to be published on Friday 7 May.
Arrivals from green countries need not quarantine but must take a pre-departure test before travelling to the UK and a PCR test within two days of arrival. The cost is likely to be around £100.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, is likely to place current red list countries in the red category. Other nations – including most European countries – will be amber. Restrictions on red and amber nations are likely to stay as they are.
How often will the categories be amended?
Countries may be moved from one category to another at any time. But government leaks suggest it aims to review the categories every two to three weeks.
It will also introduce a “green watchlist” that will “identify countries most at risk of moving from green to amber”. This has become known as “flashing green”.
The idea is to avoid the chaos last July when, for example, Spain was placed on the quarantine list at just a few hours’ notice.
Instead the aim will be to give at least two weeks’ warning, so that most holidaymakers can finish their trips as normal – and anyone booked to travel to a “flashing green” nation can consider whether or not to go.
The government stresses that there is no guarantee of advance notice and that decisions on moving countries from green to amber or red will be taken on the basis of data.
Does being on the green list mean we can definitely go to those countries?
No. Each destination abroad will come up with its own stipulations for accepting or rejecting overseas visitors. Those decisions are, of course, beyond the scope of the UK government.
Past experience suggests a dozen or more countries and territories will be given green status even though that is an irrelevant rating. Either they won’t let British visitors in (Australia, New Zealand) or are impossible to reach without passing through amber or red locations, such as far-flung British Overseas Territories. They should probably be in a separate “grey” category.
Does my vaccination status make any difference?
No. While having had both jabs may well open doors for you abroad, the government has not made any provision for people who have completed a course of vaccinations to be excused some or all of the restrictions on returning to the UK.
What are the government’s criteria for judging who goes on which list?
The Joint Biosecurity Centre, which assesses risk, looks at the status of a country’s vaccination programme, infection rates, the prevalence of variants of concern, access to genomic sequencing (enabling variants of concern to be identified) and the number of international transit passengers passing through a nation’s hub.
To be on the green list, these should be as low as possible:
coronavirus infection rates (and the proportion of tests that prove positive)
prevalence of “variants of concern”
passengers connecting through key hubs
And these should be as high as possible:
reliability of data
genomic sequencing capability
Any clues, then?
Yes, starting with Europe, where data is reasonably reliable and which is not a particular worry in terms of “variants of concern”.
The DfT says: “Surveillance has found that few cases of the [South Africa] variant have been identified as being imported from Europe, with most coming from other parts of the world.” So the main driver of the government’s decision will be infection rates.
The measure preferred by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) is for new coronavirus cases in the past 14 days per 100,000 inhabitants. These numbers are also dependent on the number of people tested, which the UK government will take into account.
Europe’s top 30
Given that the UK’s rate is around 50 and falling, most of Europe looks grim at present.
The worst 10 are as follows: Cyprus (1,221), Sweden (747), Croatia (742), France (653), Netherlands (631), Lithuania (540), Slovenia (498), Hungary (473), Poland (463) and Estonia (447).
The next 10 include some favourite Mediterranean destinations: Belgium (423), Luxembourg (408), Latvia (404), Bulgaria (367), Czech Republic (365), Austria (355), Greece (351), Germany (346), and Italy (323)
But the most popular overseas destination for British holidaymakers just squeezes into the best 10: Spain (250), Romania (202), Denmark (172), Slovakia (162), Norway (130), Ireland (115), Malta (103), Portugal (67), Finland (66) and Iceland (44).
Based on this preferred part of the top 30 table, at present Iceland should certainly make the green list. Malta has had a very successful vaccination programme and no shared borders. Finland, Norway and Portugal may make the cut – the latter is the only major holiday country likely to do so from May.
Ireland has been treated differently from all other foreign countries throughout the coronavirus pandemic. The Republic is a member of the Common Travel Area (along with the UK, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands) and no testing or quarantine has ever been required by the UK. This special status is likely to continue.
Yes. San Marino, completely surrounded by Italy, has very low case numbers and a solid vaccination programme. But since it is inaccessible without going through Italian territory, a green rating would be meaningless.
Gibraltar, where the entire adult population have already been vaccinated and there are currently zero Covid cases, is a near-certainty. It also has an international airport with direct links from the UK.
Directly across the Strait of Gibraltar, Morocco has had low case numbers throughout the coronavirus pandemic. There is some discussion about whether this simply reflects a limited amount of testing or is a genuine reflection of excellent health.
Albania has a low case rate, but there are concerns about data.
Israel is the major country with the best vaccine roll-out. Partly because of the success of the vaccination programme, case numbers have dwindled sharply and steadily since a peak in January. It is not yet clear when British visitors might be welcomed.
Could individual islands or regions join the green list?
Yes. Grant Shapps has confirmed that individual islands will be considered for green list status, even if other parts of the same country are regarded as higher risk.
He said of the “islands approach” that was eventually adopted by the UK last summer: “I want to do that again. I don’t want to go backwards, I want to go forwards.”
That decision may benefit travellers hoping to visit either the Balearics or the Canary Islands of Spain and potentially some Greek islands – though current infection rates are high in some of those locations.
The UAE is seeing new cases fall, and has so far administered nearly 11 million doses of vaccines to its population of 10 million. But the transport secretary appeared to rule out the Gulf state indefinitely because Dubai and Abu Dhabi are key air hubs.
On 20 April Grant Shapps said: “We are not restricting UAE because of levels of coronavirus in the UAE. The specific issue in the UAE is one of transit. It’s because they are a major transit hub.
“The Joint Biosecurity Centre can work wonders studying all this detail, but eventually you get to the point where they are having to make too many assumptions about where people are travelling to/from.
“And that is specific issue we have with the UAE as opposed to prevalence or some other reason.”
The US has suffered some appallingly high infection and death rates. Yet the vaccination programme is going well, and there are rumours that a bilateral deal will be struck with the UK to remove barriers to travel (which are currently much higher on the American side than the British).
Some Caribbean islands, including Barbados, Grenada and Jamaica, could make the green list thanks to their effective vaccination programmes.
Across the Asia-Pacific region there are dozens of candidates for the green list, notably Australia and New Zealand – which have just begin a trans-Tasman travel bubble between them – and oceanic locations such as Samoa and the Cook Islands.
These countries will certainly not yet open to British visitors. Along with miscellaneous British Overseas Territories that are impossible to reach direct, their inclusion will pad out the green list but will not open any doors.
You haven’t mentioned Turkey, Latin America or Africa (except Morocco) …
Turkey had a difficult April, and continues to have very high levels of new cases. There are also concerns, first revealed last autumn, about the reliability of data.
Even if the vaccine programme works wonders, it is difficult to see Turkey making the green list during the first half of this year.
Much of Latin America is off-limits due to fears of the Brazilian variant: every country in South America, plus Panama, is on the UK red list.
Cuba, which has a first-rate health service and is developing two vaccines of its own, must be the leading candidate for the green list. Mexico, the main draw for British travellers, has a slow vaccine programme.
Africa has been on the UK’s “no-go” list for 13 months, apart from a brief opening up of Rwanda and Namibia in the autumn. Any rapid rehabilitation of significant numbers of African countries looks highly unlikely.